WASHINGTON – A blue-ribbon commission Wednesday recommended creation of a new government agency to control nuclear waste and a new consent-based strategy to deal with the issue.
Members of the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future advised a House committee to put in place an eight-point plan that the panel spelled out in a final report to the Energy Department.
Among the proposals: formation of a “new organization dedicated solely to implementing the waste management program and empowered with the authority and resources to succeed” and also “prompt efforts to develop one or more geologic disposal facilities.”
Ret. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, co-chairman of the commission, said the members saw flaws in America’s waste storage policies, but think the commission’s plan can remedy the problem.
“We came away from our review frustrated by decades of unmet commitments to the American people, yet confident that we can turn this record around,” Scowcroft said.
Scowcroft stressed that “top-down regulation” cannot be used to handle nuclear waste. “New institutional leadership is needed” to get the waste program back on track, he said. The commission recommends a new government corporation to combat the waste, without the politics.
“We believe a congressionally chartered federal corporation offers the best model, but whatever the specific form of the new organization it must possess the attributes, independence and resources to effectively carry out its mission,” Scowcroft said.
Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy Peter Lyons told the House committee that Energy Secretary Steven Chu thinks the Blue Ribbon report is a crucial step for America’s nuclear future.
“The United States must develop a sustainable fuel cycle and used fuel management strategy to ensure that nuclear power continues to be a safe, reliable resource for our nation’s long-term energy supply and security,” Lyons said.
Some committee members said they were fed up with partisan and geographical bickering over nuclear waste storage. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space, Technology Committee, said he wants to end the debate and move forward with nuclear storage at the Yucca Mountain facility in Nevada.
“When the commission’s draft report came out in July, I stated that it is time to stop playing politics and move forward with the Yucca Mountain project,” Hall said. “I echo that sentiment today.”
The Yucca Mountain site was selected by Congress in 1987 and deemed suitable for usage by the Department of Energy in 2002. However, after more reviews, the Energy Department asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to remove the site’s licensing. The NRC refused. After the quarreling, President Obama created the commission to find a solution to long-term nuclear waste storage.
Hall blames the Obama administration for halting the Yucca Mountain project and “throwing this country’s nuclear waste management process into disarray.”
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the top Democrat on the committee, disagreed with Hall, saying Yucca Mountain was only a “partial solution.”
Johnson said the Yucca Mountain facility was forced upon Nevada by Congress. The commission’s new “consent-based approach” gives a framework to avoid local animosity, she said, reflected by the situation in Nevada.
“They [the commission] acknowledged that the decisions three decades ago regarding Yucca Mountain were not purely technical or scientific, but political, despite vocal and vibrant community opposition,” Johnson said.
Scowcroft said that local counties support the Yucca Mountain facility, but the Nevada congressional delegation does not. He thinks that there are still enough merits and political goodwill to possibly open the facility.
Scowcroft, a top national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, said that there will be additional communities that will agree to hosting storage facilities.
He pointed to the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in New Mexico as an area that has welcomed nuclear storage. Richard Meserve, a member of the commission, said that there are sites around the country that store other types of hazardous waste and that incentives can influence communities to take the waste.
The Commission recommended the “consent-based approach” in order to protect the rights of communities that would be in proximity of nuclear waste facilities. Nevada had objected to the Yucca Mountain facility but Congress overrode its objection. Even today, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., is one of the most outspoken critics of the site.
No matter what is decided on Yucca Mountain, Meserve said the United States will need multiple facilities to store its waste in the future.
“We simply note that regardless what happens with Yucca Mountain, the U.S. inventory of spent nuclear fuel will soon exceed the amount that can be legally emplaced at this site until a second repository is in operation,” Meserve said.
Scowcroft added that the commission did not evaluate individual locations for storage, including Yucca Mountain.
Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., asked the commissioners why reprocessing is not at the forefront of America’s nuclear strategy. He said that European countries can reprocess up to 90 percent of their spent waste.
In response, Meserve said that the cost of reprocessing is much greater than mining new uranium. He said there is no economic reason to reprocess spent fuel when uranium is plentiful.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said that burying waste is “not a problem, but an opportunity.” She said the half-life of the nuclear waste is thousands of years and it can be dealt with when technology is more advanced.
The commission presented its findings to the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee last week.